VOD film review: Sweet Thing
James R | On 12, Sep 2021
Director: Alexandre Rockwell
Cast: Nico Rockwell, Lana Rockwell, Will Patton, Karyn Parsons, ML Josepher, Jabari Watkins
“I don’t believe in Santa,” declares Nico (Nico Rockwell) early on in Sweet Thing, Alexandre Rockwell’s tender, tough coming-of-age drama. It’s no surprise that the 11-year-old should reach that conclusion: his dad (Will Patton) makes money as a shopping centre Santa, at least when it’s Christmas time, and spends the rest of his time drinking.
He’s a loving, kind father, but entirely unsuitable to be a parent, his alcohol abuse leaving him to swing wildly from affection to anger, from thoughtfulness to bullying. Nico’s sister, Billie (Lana Rockwell), suffers the brunt of that, as she excitedly receives ukulele for Christmas from her dad one day and the next finds him cutting away chunks of her hair in a vague form of punishment. It’s a harrowing, upsetting moment of disempowerment, taking away part of who she is. In solidarity and sympathy, Nico cuts out parts of his own hair.
That support is at the heart of what makes Sweet Thing a strangely uplifting watch, as Alexandre Rockwell balances out the intense pain of their childhood with the equally intense loyalty of children banding together. When their father is sent to rehab, the kids end up living with their mother (Karyn Parsons) instead, but her new boyfriend, Beaux (ML Josepher), poses just as much as a threat, as abusive behaviour rears its head.
The cast are uniformly excellent, with Rockwell drawing out natural, semi-improvised performances (some of the cast are from Rockwell’s own family) that echo the grounded grit of Lasse Tolbøll’s black-and-white cinematography. Into that monochrome reality enters outcast teen Malik (Jabari Watkins), who arrives on the screen with vivid bursts of colour – a sign of the joyful hope, in the form of a kindred spirit, that’s missing in the rest of their lives.
“You’re not going to ruin the good thing I got going here,” says their mother when they try to tell her about Beaux’s real nature, but it’s the same resilience that Rockwell captures so effectively, as the innocence of these young people overcomes the challenges of life. The result feels like a cousin of The Florida Project and Beasts of the Southern Wild and, while the script zooms in so closely on its ensemble that it doesn’t have the impact of those films’ wider social context, the low-key intimacy amplifies the moving honesty of Rockwell’s ode to growing up. At one point, the tone is cemented by the use of Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer from Badlands, but it’s Lana Rockwell’s singing of the titular song that sticks with you.